Press Releases 2003

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eso0339-en-us — Science Release
The Colour of the Young Universe
19 December 2003: An international team of astronomers [1] has determined the colour of the Universe when it was very young. While the Universe is now kind of beige, it was much bluer in the distant past , at a time when it was only 2,500 million years old. This is the outcome of an extensive and thorough analysis of more than 300 galaxies seen within a small southern sky area, the so-called Hubble Deep Field South. The main goal of this advanced study was to understand how the stellar content of the Universe was assembled and has changed over time. Dutch astronomer Marijn Franx , a team member from the Leiden Observatory (The Netherlands), explains: "The blue colour of the early Universe is caused by the predominantly blue light from young stars in the galaxies. The redder colour of the Universe today is caused by the relatively larger number of older, redder stars." The team leader, Gregory Rudnick from the Max-Planck Institut für Astrophysics (Garching, Germany) adds: "Since the total amount of light in the Universe in the past was about the same as today and a young blue star emits much more light than an old red star, there must have been significantly fewer stars in the young Universe than there is now. Our new findings imply that the majority of stars in the Universe were formed comparatively late, not so long before our Sun was born, at a moment when the Universe was around 7,000 million years old." These new results are based on unique data collected during more than 100 hours of observations with the ISAAC multi-mode instrument at ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT), as part of a major research project, the Faint InfraRed Extragalactic Survey (FIRES) . The distances to the galaxies were estimated from their brightness in different optical near-infrared wavelength bands.
eso0338-en-us — Photo Release
Three Dusty Beauties
19 December 2003: Not so long ago, the real nature of the "spiral nebulae", spiral-shaped objects observed in the sky through telescopes, was still unknown. This long-standing issue was finally settled in 1924 when the famous American astronomer Edwin Hubble provided conclusive evidence that they are located outside our own galaxy and are in fact "island universes" of their own. Nowadays, we know that the Milky Way is just one of billions of galaxies in the Universe. They come in vastly different shapes - spiral, elliptical, irregular - and many of them are simply beautiful, especially the spiral ones. Astronomers Mark Neeser from the Universitäts-Sternwarte München (Germany) and Peter Barthel from the Kapteyn Institute in Groningen (The Netherlands) were clearly not insensitive to this when they obtained images of three beautiful spiral galaxies with ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT). They did this in twilight during the early morning when they had to stop their normal observing programme, searching for very distant and faint quasars.
eso0337-en-us — Organisation Release
OECD Global Science Forum's Astronomy Workshop to take place in Munich
27 November 2003: On December 1 to 3, the city of Munich (Bavaria, Germany) will be the venue for a "Workshop on Large Scale Programmes and Projects in Astronomy and Astrophysics" organised by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Global Science Forum in co-operation with the European Southern Observatory (ESO). The Workshop will be chaired by Ian Corbett (ESO).
eso0336-en-us — Science Release
Biggest Star in Our Galaxy Sits within a Rugby-Ball Shaped Cocoon
18 November 2003: Ever since 1841, when the until then inconspicuous southern star Eta Carinae underwent a spectacular outburst, astronomers have wondered what exactly is going on in this unstable giant star. However, due to its considerable distance - 7,500 light-years - details of the star itself were beyond observation. This star is known to be surrounded by the Homunculus Nebula , two mushroom-shaped clouds ejected by the star, each of which is hundreds of times larger than our solar system. Now, for the first time, infrared interferometry with the VINCI instrument on ESO's Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) enabled an international team of astronomers [1] to zoom-in on the inner part of its stellar wind. For Roy van Boekel , leader of the team, these results indicate that " the wind of Eta Carinae turns out to be extremely elongated and the star itself is highly unstable because of its fast rotation."
eso0335-en-us — Science Release
Observing a Burst with Sunglasses
12 November 2003: New observations of a Gamma-Ray Burst in polarised light, performed with the FORS instrument on ESO's Very Large Telescope, reveal for the first time a significant variation in time of the polarisation properties. This behaviour is unpredicted by major existing thoeries.
eso0334-en-us — Organisation Release
Astronomers Break Ground on Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) - World's Largest Millimeter Wavelength Telescope
6 November 2003: Scientists and dignitaries from Europe, North America and Chile are breaking ground today (Thursday, November 6, 2003) on what will be the world's largest, most sensitive radio telescope operating at millimeter wavelengths. ALMA - the "Atacama Large Millimeter Array" - will be a single instrument composed of 64 high-precision antennas located in the II Region of Chile, in the District of San Pedro de Atacama, at the Chajnantor altiplano, 5,000 metres above sea level. ALMA 's primary function will be to observe and image with unprecedented clarity the enigmatic cold regions of the Universe, which are optically dark, yet shine brightly in the millimetre portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.
eso0333-en-us — Organisation Release
"Physics and Life" - Teachers Meet Scientists at Major EIROforum Event
5 November 2003: More than 400 selected delegates from 22 European countries will take part in "Physics on Stage 3" , organised by the EIROforum [1] research organisations (CERN, EFDA, EMBL, ESA, ESO, ESRF, ILL) at the ESA ESTEC site (Noordwijk, The Netherlands). It is the culmination of a year-long educational programme and is a central event during the EC-sponsored European Science and Technology Week (November 8-15, 2003).
eso0332-en-us — Photo Release
Roses in the Southern Sky
3 November 2003: The two best known satellite galaxies of the Milky Way, the Magellanic Clouds, are located in the southern sky at a distance of about 170,000 light-years. They host many giant nebular complexes with very hot and luminous stars whose intense ultraviolet radiation causes the surrounding interstellar gas to glow.
eso0331-en-us — Organisation Release
South America Delegation of the European Parliament Visits ESO's Paranal Observatory
30 October 2003: Chaired by Dr. Rolf Linkohr , Members of the European Parliament Delegation for Relations with the Countries of South America and MERCOSUR visited ESO's Paranal Observatory on October 29-30, 2003.
eso0330-en-us — Science Release
Messages from the Abyss
29 October 2003: An international team of astronomers led by researchers at the Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) in Garching (Germany) [2] has discovered powerful infrared flares from the supermassive black hole at the heart of the Milky Way. The signals, rapidly flickering on a scale of minutes, must come from hot gas falling into the black hole, just before it disappears below the "event horizon" of the monster. The new observations strongly suggest that the Galactic Centre black hole rotates rapidly. Never before have scientists been able to study phenomena in the immediate neighbourhood of a black hole in such a detail. The new result is based on observations obtained with the NACO Adaptive Optics instrument on the 8.2-m VLT YEPUN telescope and is published in this week's edition of the research journal Nature.
eso0329-en-us — Science Release
Optical Detection of Anomalous Nitrogen in Comets
12 September 2003: A team of European astronomers [1] has used the UVES spectrograph on the 8.2-m VLT KUEYEN telescope to perform a uniquely detailed study of Comet LINEAR (C/2000 WM1) . This is the first time that this powerful instrument has been employed to obtain high-resolution spectra of a comet. At the time of the observations in mid-March 2002, Comet LINEAR was about 180 million km from the Sun, moving outwards after its perihelion passage in January. As comets are believed to carry "pristine" material - left-overs from the formation of the solar system, about 4,600 million years ago - studies of these objects are important to obtain clues about the origins of the solar system and the Earth in particular. The high quality of the data obtained of this moving 9th-magnitude object has permitted a determination of the cometary abundance of various elements and their isotopes [2]. Of particular interest is the unambiguous detection and measurement of the nitrogen-15 isotope. The only other comet in which this isotope has been observed is famous Comet Hale-Bopp - this was during the passage in 1997, when it was much brighter than Comet LINEAR. Most interestingly, Comet LINEAR and Comet Hale-Bopp display the same isotopic abundance ratio, about 1 nitrogen-15 atom for each 140 nitrogen-14 atoms ( 14 N/ 15 N = 140 ± 30) . That is about half of the terrestrial value (272). It is also very different from the result obtained by means of radio measurements of Comet Hale-Bopp ( 14 N/ 15 N = 330 ± 75). Optical and radio measurements concern different molecules (CN and HCN, respectively), and this isotopic anomaly must be explained by some differentiation mechanism. The astronomers conclude that part of the cometary nitrogen is trapped in macromolecules attached to dust particles.
eso0328-en-us — Photo Release
New Image of Comet Halley in the Cold
1 September 2003: Seventeen years after the last passage of Comet Halley , the ESO Very Large Telescope at Paranal (Chile) has captured a unique image of this famous object as it cruises through the outer solar system. It is completely inactive in this cold environment. No other comet has ever been observed this far - 4200 million km from the Sun - or that faint - nearly 1000 million times fainter than what can be perceived with the unaided eye. This observation is a byproduct of a dedicated search [1] for small Trans-Neptunian Objects, a population of icy bodies of which more than 600 have been found during the past decade.
eso0327-en-us — Photo Release
Infrared Halo Frames a Newborn Star
28 August 2003: Observations with the VLT of a star-forming cloud have revealed, for the first time, a ring of infrared light around a nascent star. The images also show the presence of jets that emanate from the young object and collide with the surrounding cloud.
eso0326-en-us — Science Release
New Insight into the Cosmic Renaissance Epoch
21 August 2003: Using the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT) , two astronomers from Germany and the UK [2] have discovered some of the most distant galaxies ever seen. They are located about 12,600 million light-years away. It has taken the light now recorded by the VLT about nine-tenths of the age of the Universe to traverse this huge distance. We therefore observe those galaxies as they were at a time when the Universe was very young, less than about 10% of its present age . At this time, the Universe was emerging from a long period known as the "Dark Ages," entering the luminous "Cosmic Renaissance" epoch. Unlike previous studies which resulted in the discovery of a few, widely dispersed galaxies at this early epoch, the present study found at least six remote citizens within a small sky area, less than five per cent the size of the full moon! This allowed understanding the evolution of these galaxies and how they affect the state of the Universe in its youth. In particular, the astronomers conclude on the basis of their unique data that there were considerably fewer luminous galaxies in the Universe at this early stage than 500 million years later. There must therefore be many less luminous galaxies in the region of space that they studied, too faint to be detected in this study. It must be those still unidentified galaxies that emit the majority of the energetic photons needed to ionise the hydrogen in the Universe at that particularly epoch.
eso0325-en-us — Science Release
The VLT Measures the Shape of a Type Ia Supernova
6 August 2003: An international team of astronomers [2] has performed new and very detailed observations of a supernova in a distant galaxy with the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory (Chile). They show for the first time that a particular type of supernova, caused by the explosion of a "white dwarf", a dense star with a mass around that of the Sun, is asymmetric during the initial phases of expansion. The significance of this observation is much larger than may seem at a first glance . This particular kind of supernova, designated "Type Ia", plays a very important role in the current attempts to map the Universe. It has for long been assumed that Type Ia supernovae all have the same intrinsic brightness , earning them a nickname as "standard candles." If so, differences in the observed brightness between individual supernovae of this type simply reflect their different distances. This, and the fact that the peak brightness of these supernovae rivals that of their parent galaxy, has allowed to measure distances of even very remote galaxies . Some apparent discrepancies that were recently found have led to the discovery of cosmic acceleration. However, this first clearcut observation of explosion asymmetry in a Type Ia supernova means that the exact brightness of such an object will depend on the angle from which it is seen. Since this angle is unknown for any particular supernova, this obviously introduces an amount of uncertainty into this kind of basic distance measurements in the Universe which must be taken into account in the future. Fortunately, the VLT data also show that if you wait a little - which in observational terms makes it possible to look deeper into the expanding fireball - then it becomes more spherical. Distance determinations of supernovae that are performed at this later stage will therefore be more accurate.
eso0324-en-us — Organisation Release
Philippe Busquin Visits Paranal
30 July 2003: The European Commissioner for Research, Mr. Philippe Busquin, who is currently visiting the Republic of Chile, arrived at the ESO Paranal Observatory on Tuesday afternoon, July 29, 2003. The Commissioner was accompanied, among others, by the EU Ambassador to Chile, Mr. Wolfgang Plasa, and Ms. Christina Lazo, Executive Director of the Chilean Science and Technology Agency (CONICYT).
eso0323-en-us — Organisation Release
Catherine Cesarsky
24 July 2003: The General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), meeting in Sydney (Australia), has appointed the ESO Director General, Dr. Catherine Cesarsky, as President Elect for a three-year period (2003-2006). The IAU is the world's foremost organisation for astronomy, uniting almost 9000 professional scientists on all continents. The IAU General Assembly also elected Prof. Ron Ekers (Australia) as President (2003 - 2006). Dr. Cesarsky will then become President of the IAU in 2006, when the General Assembly next meets in Prague (The Czech Republic). Dr. Cesarsky is the first woman scientist to receive this high distinction.
eso0322-en-us — Science Release
Revealing the Beast Within
22 July 2003: Peering into a giant molecular cloud in the Milky Way galaxy - known as W49 - astronomers from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) have discovered a whole new population of very massive newborn stars . This research is being presented today at the International Astronomical Union's 25th General Assembly held in Sydney, Australia, by ESO-scientist João Alves. With the help of infrared images obtained during a period of excellent observing conditions with the ESO 3.5-m New Technology Telescope (NTT) at the La Silla Observatory (Chile), the astronomers looked deep into this molecular cloud and discovered four massive stellar clusters, with hot and energetic stars as massive as 120 solar masses. The exceedingly strong radiation from the stars in the largest of these clusters is "powering" a 20 light-year diameter region of mostly ionized hydrogen gas (a "giant HII region"). W49 is one of the most energetic regions of star formation in the Milky Way. With the present discovery, the true sources of the enormous energy have now been revealed for the first time, finally bringing to an end some decades of astronomical speculations and hypotheses.
eso0321-en-us — Science Release
Nearest Cosmic Mirage
16 July 2003: Using the ESO 3.6-m telescope at La Silla (Chile), an international team of astronomers [1] has discovered a complex cosmic mirage in the southern constellation Crater (The Cup). This "gravitational lens" system consists of (at least) four images of the same quasar as well as a ring-shaped image of the galaxy in which the quasar resides - known as an "Einstein ring." The more nearby lensing galaxy that causes this intriguing optical illusion is also well visible. The team obtained spectra of these objects with the new EMMI camera mounted on the ESO 3.5-m New Technology Telescope (NTT), also at the La Silla observatory. They find that the lensed quasar [2] is located at a distance of 6,300 million light-years (its "redshift" is z = 0.66 [3]) while the lensing elliptical galaxy is rougly halfway between the quasar and us, at a distance of 3,500 million light-years (z = 0.3). The system has been designated RXS J1131-1231 - it is the closest gravitationally lensed quasar discovered so far.
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